In her upcoming book Lotus author Zhang Lijia explores the life of Chinese sex workers, taking the life of her grandmother, a concubine, as a starting point. On the weblog Zhen de Gender, she explains what it took to do her research. “Prostitution is just a device, a window to show the tensions and the changes.”
Zhen de Gender:
I discovered that many people have the same fantasy. People ask me: are these prostitutes beautiful? They’re just normal women – some are ugly, some wear more makeup, they wear more revealing clothes, but they are just normal women.
Their lives are very complicated. All the prostitutes I have met help their family. It is out of obligation but it also makes them feel good. They know prostitution is wrong so they argue, ‘look I’m helping my family, you cannot say I’m a bad person.’ Also, because they have money, they improve their position in the family, who are proud of them, which gives them a lot of pleasure.
I stayed with them, those prostitutes. I was really interesting. I asked one woman, ‘what’s your favourite [food]?’ and she said, ‘toast on jam.’ She had begun to experiment with things; in the village you would never have heard of such things. I went to see her mother. I asked her what to buy for her mother, she said, ‘buy something my mother hasn’t tried.’ So this was all part of her trying new things. I bought her mother a durian.
Why does the world need to know about China’s sex workers?
Prostitution is just a device, a window to show the tensions and the changes. You can pack in so many important issues: migration, women’s position, the gap between city and rural.
What challenges did you face when researching Lotus?
Part of the biggest challenge is their life is so far removed from mine. One of my friends said: ‘try and work as a prostitute, you can satisfy your sexual needs, and you can make some money, and do your research.’ Imagine, if I had to work as a prostitute! I know I have lots of choices in life, so it’s difficult to identify with their life.
They’re just humans, they’re very complicated. I really had lots of fun. They talk a lot about breasts and some of them have implants. One woman’s implants go sideways! You know, just awful. Before they are successful [with a client] they often go to the back room – they really compare their breasts!
I went to another of the prostitutes’ home to visit her family. She had become quite successful, she had bought her family a flat and she no longer lived in the village. She went back because she was supposed to be sweeping the tomb for her stepfather and when she arrived she put on high heels. High heels! When we were walking to the mountain she was wearing high heels. To show [her change in status].
Sounds like you quite enjoyed that process.
Of course, yes. But it took me so long! I worked as a volunteer, distributing condoms. If we hadn’t met, how could we have language, what would we talk about? If they’re not in my life, it would be difficult to imagine. So many small details in the book are real.
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